Edited 1 May: The sauna featured below at Sompasauna was unfortunately destroyed in a fire shortly after this article was published. However, Sompasauna lives on as a new one with the same spirit has already been constructed in its place.
But there is nothing quite like Sompasauna in Helsinki, which is located at the far edge of a deserted dockland that has all the elegance and charm of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Yet I remembered seeing another one called Sompasauna appearing as a viral video in my Facebook feed a year ago. (Those algorithms know me well.)
This sauna was built without any permission and is maintained by volunteers who keep it free for public use.
The area had been considerably transformed since the YouTube video was filmed so, as we trekked through the construction site with our towels, Anni began to wonder if the sauna actually still existed and we had made a big mistake by leaving a beachfront cocktail bar on a sunny Saturday for this slightly less romantic wasteland.
I took out my phone, searched Sompasauna on Instagram and showed her pictures of happy people there over the past few days.
If we were being lured into a trap, it was very convincing one — so we kept walking in search of the promised land.
Finally, we saw naked people at the shoreline in the distance and now hoped more than ever that there was a sauna there.
It transpired that our promised land sauna was everything we had dreamed of.
There were men and women of all ages coming in and out of the sauna (and the sea), as well as sipping drinks and watching the sun slowly going down behind the city.
I should point out now that all the pictures in this article were taken at 7am the next morning on a quick return visit before our ferry back to Tallinn.
There’s good reasons for this: There were lots of naked people around (and it’s tricky explaining that you have a legitimate sauna blog) and we ran out of battery on phones (but illegally constructed dockland saunas tend not to have plugs).
There are two things I can’t tell you about this sauna — its past and its future.
No one quite knows who first constructed it, which is probably wise for legal reasons, and the construction of the luxury homes on the dock are getting closer by the day. It’s remarkable it has lasted this long, but every summer threatens to be its last.
The first Sompasauna was actually torn down by city authorities, which prompted outrage across Finland where the sauna is almost considered a holy place. Our fellow sauna fans there explained that the current Sompasauna construction is “the fifth or sixth”.
When not keeping the fire burning at the sauna, the volunteers are scrolling around Google Maps to find other locations where the spirit of Sompasauna could live on after they are forced to leave the dock it is named after.
That would be a shame, but also a strategic error for the developers I think. Sompasauna is a unique oasis of joy and human freedom that you can’t put a price tag on — although I’m sure it does add real monetary value to the area too.
Helsinki is like hardware and Sompasauna is like the open source software that can be built on top of it, explains one volunteer in another YouTube video (in Finnish with English subtitles) that has received less views, but goes deeper into the history of the sauna:
Sompasauna might actually have been built by Dr. Who, the BBC sci-fi character whose Tardis spaceship is vastly larger on the inside. We opened the door to the sauna and it was packed with more Finns than you could possibly imagine would fit inside.
The conversations were lively, but all in Finnish until they noticed we couldn’t join in. They were keen to tell us about the sauna, including what ‘sompa’ meant. It’s so weirdly specific that the explanation did require a group effort.
“It’s like a handle… which is round,” one person suggested.
Anni and I racked our brains to try and imagine any round handles we’d ever used.
“Like when you go skiing,” someone else clarified. “You need a round shape on the ski lift to grab and put between your legs when you are pulled up the hill.”
It’s safe to say that we will never again need to use this word in conversation with Finns — except when talking about Sompasauna.
Sompasauna is open 24 hours a day for anyone who wants to visit. If the sauna isn’t warm already, simply grab some wood and light it yourself.
“We have places called ’24 hour saunas’ in Tallinn,” I pointed out. “But you definitely don’t want to visit those.”
A few of our fellow sauna fans there had even been there for a sunrise sauna after a night out. This is what it typically looks like on a Saturday though, according to Google’s data:
The video I saw on Facebook has since received about 1.5 million views since it was posted just over a year ago.
It’s been flagged as ‘inappropriate for some viewers’, but you can watch it for yourself here:
Sitting outside Sompasauna, we looked across the water at the beachfront cocktail bar on the opposite shore.
We knew we’d made the right to decision coming here.
How to visit this Finnish sauna
If you’d like to experience Sompasauna for yourself (before it is removed) then take a tram or metro from Helsinki city centre to Sörnäinen then follow the directions on Google Maps to the end of Sompasaari (round-shaped handle island).
It’s free, but if you want to use the toilet then they have a number on the door that you can use to donate €2. It’s meant to be a toilet fee, but it’s nice to send it anyway. You’ll need to use a Finnish phone for this so if you don’t have one then they suggest asking someone to do it for you and giving them €2.
Here’s their website.
About ‘Estonian Saunas’
Thanks for reading. The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas.
Anni is a green building specialist who grew up here in Estonia immersed in sauna culture, while Adam is a väliseestlane (‘foreign Estonian’) whose family were exiled to the UK during Soviet times but he has now returned and is still trying to understand the sauna — and everything else about his Estonian heritage.
Together, we love finding weird and wonderful saunas all over Estonia and telling the world about them. Check out our plan to make 100 Estonian saunas more famous around the world.
We also offer two saunas in Tallinn that you can visit. Both are based on the best of Estonian design and technology, although in very different ways. The first is our smoke sauna, Rangi saun, which combines an ancient sauna heating technique with a contemporary Estonian design. The second is our WiFi-controlled e-sauna, Tondi Saun, which is part of our apartment that you can book through Airbnb.
In addition to reading our blog, you can follow Estonian Saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There’s also a Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas where you can share advice and stories.
Finally, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.